According to the website Access Living, “Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior.” Growing up, I always felt less than because of my cerebral palsy. It was hard to see the other kids in my classes go to sleepovers and be invited to birthday parties. I knew I was different from the other children growing up. I remember being in the second grade and asking a classmate when he was going to his physical therapy appointment. When I was eight, I thought everybody received PT twice a week, just like I did.
As I grew up, I sometimes felt like I was on a different planet than my peers. They were all talking about their part-time jobs, driver’s licenses, and prom dates. Meanwhile, I was worried about how much class time I would miss when using the bathroom. I envied the fact that my peers could go to prom without it potentially becoming the next feel-good news story on social media. I want to live in a society where disabled people get asked to prom without becoming the next local or national news story. When I was in school, people seemed hyperfocused on my social skills and ability to make friends. However, my peers were never pressured to make friends and be social. The staff always thought that I ought to interact with people or else I’d be lonely. They didn’t seem to understand that I wanted connections to happen naturally rather than be forced to become friends with someone.
In a season two episode of the ABC sitcom Speechless, the main character with cerebral palsy, JJ, is used as a source of inspiration by a classmate who barely knows him. The written piece depicts JJ as a big inspiration for simply living his life, and the principal of the high school calls JJ and Donald (the student who wrote the piece) friends.
This scenario is something I encountered quite a few times when I was in school. Adults would assume that any time I was seen conversing or socializing with a peer, I was their close friend. Adults often praised both the non-disabled peer and me. The classmate without disabilities was often praised just for talking to me or sitting with me at lunch. If I was sitting by myself, there was concern that I wouldn’t know how to interact with people.
Disabled people don’t exist to make non-disabled people feel good about themselves or to earn community service hours. For example, my former high school has a Best Buddies chapter. Best Buddies pairs a nondisabled student with a disabled student. The non-disabled students were often praised for their work with “those kids,” as I heard a classmate say in school once. “Those kids” are human beings just like the rest of us with feelings and personalities.
Throughout school, I felt like I didn’t belong. Now that I am older, I have a couple of close friends who feel like a part of my family. My friends embrace my challenges rather than shy away from them or pity me. I’ve also encountered a fair amount of ableism in my quest to look for a job. Employers often don’t call me back when I disclose that I have a disability.
Ableism might make me feel worthless at times, but it’s not going to take away my unique talents and gifts. We all have our gifts and talents. Cerebral Palsy limits me sometimes, but it doesn’t make me any less of a human being than anyone else.
Eisenmenger, Ashley. “Ableism 101 – What Is Ableism? What Does It Look like?” Access Living, Access Living, 12 Dec. 2019, http://www.accessliving.org/newsroom/blog/ableism-101/.
Zaslow, Alexandra. “Cheerleader Asks Special Needs Student to Prom in Sweetest Way Possible.” TODAY.com, TODAY, 29 Feb. 2016, http://www.today.com/health/cheerleader-asks-special-needs-student-prom-sweetest-way-possible-t76571.